Empathy: What’s in it to Feel Others’ Pain?

by Robin Stevens Payes

June 11, 2013

“I came by my interest in empathy honestly. When I was 20, a stranger saved my life after a freeway accident in my hometown of Tacoma, Washington. Ever since, I have been on a mission to understand what drives people to help or harm one another.” ~ Abigail Marsh 

Abigail Marsh
Abigail Marsh, Ph.D.
Abigail Marsh holds a PhD from Harvard University and conducted her post-doctoral research on emotion in teens and adults at the National Institute of Mental Health. Now a professor at Georgetown University, she uses neuroimaging, pharmacological, genetic, and neurocognitive techniques to research emotions such as empathy in healthy adults and adolescents, and psychopathy, or what researchers term callous unemotional (CU) traits associated with maladaptive emotional responses in adolescents with behavioral problems.

Q:  What is empathy and how does it relate to your research on callous-unemotional traits?

My research has shown that the most important part of feeling empathy is first recognizing what someone else is feeling. We know through years of studies and observation that early nurturing helps promote emotional connection. But an overview of recent cognitive neuroscience research highlights the relationship between empathy and the ability to detect and respond to distress in others.

Empathizing with others often involves activating the same brain structures that would be active if you yourself were experiencing the pain, fear, or disgust the other person is experiencing.

So decoding how empathy works in the brain often involves investigating what neurocognitive evidence shows up for those without it.

Q: How did you get interested in studying empathy?

It's hard to say what drew me to this line of research. I've always been interested in empathy, but that interest was definitely ratcheted up by an experience in which a stranger saved my life when I was 20, and another where a stranger punched me in the face in Las Vegas and broke my nose when I was 23.

So right around the time my research interests were developing, I was on the receiving end of both a random act of heroism and aggression.  

Both experiences really threw me for a time... sort of upended my perceptions of human nature and got me thinking about why it is we ever care about other people's welfare, and the chain of events that leads to feelings of compassion or concern.  

I still think it's the most incredible thing—that we genuinely do have the capacity to care about the welfare of a human being other than ourselves. The aftermath of the Boston bombings provides countless incredible examples of that. And the capacity to care is so fundamentally inexplicable still. Most of my research tries to uncover pieces of the puzzle that might help explain it.

Q: Is empathy an innate characteristic?

There is clearly some innate capacity for empathy. The most famous studies to this effect show that newborns cry more in response to the sound of other infants crying than to recordings of their own cries or recordings of aversive noise that is not a cry.  

But we understand that empathy is a multi-faceted phenomenon that isn't fully developed until well into late adolescence or early adulthood, because mature empathy involves coordination of a lot of brain structures that take time to develop.

Q: You’ve said your research shows that changes in the amygdala—either in size or based on nurturing or trauma—are identifiable with the capacity to develop empathy. Can you explain what you mean?

Fear is a universal emotion. Our brain signals us to the presence of danger—very useful to avoid being attacked by wolves, for example. The amygdala is involved in that automated tracking. When it’s been compromised—with faulty wiring or through trauma or abuse—people cannot identify, or empathize, with that emotion.

In fact, psychopathy is associated with a lack of emotion. Our research shows that teens who rate high in CU traits do not feel fear or recognize fear in others. We measure this by looking at brain activity in the amygdala, while showing both groups of teens pictures of fearful faces.  

That said, the idea of shared representations of affect being important to empathy is very much alive. And there is great evidence that failing to show amygdala activation when exposed to someone else’s fear is associated with reduced sympathy.

What we don't know at all is why.  

We know that low amygdala activity to another person’s fear cues is associated with low sympathy. But the mechanism has to go beyond that in ways we don't understand well right now.

Q: For people in whom empathy is not developed early based perhaps on faulty wiring, or through abuse, trauma, or neglect, does neuroplasticity allow later learning of that trait?

Maldevelopment of one or more critical [brain] structures can negatively impact the development of empathy. And callous-unemotional traits clearly have very early effects on developing subcortical structures, whose functioning is more difficult to compensate for than functioning in the cortex. The cortex is much more plastic in some ways.

Even so, there are almost always workarounds for nearly any neurocognitive process that can be developed through therapy.

Our research and that of others suggests that [through neuroplasticity] processes like moral reasoning that rely on the amygdala in low-CU adolescents can, with conscious effort [be rerouted to bypass the amygdala and instead] be accomplished to some degree via regions of the prefrontal cortex.

Q: Do these processes differ in adolescents than they do, say, in young children or adults?

While research on callous-unemotional traits in adults is well established, ours was one of the first research studies to look at adolescents. Emotion recognition changes in teens, probably related to the massive pruning of synapses in the prefrontal cortex in adolescence. One aspect of being a teen is that you’re worried how other people see you, and you forget to think about how other people may be feeling.

Having compassion for other people goes away when you’re overly anxious. So learning to regulate your emotions is critical. We know that is particularly difficult during adolescence. In teens, there does seem to be greater activity in the emotional part of the brain, like the limbic system and the striatum. The prefrontal cortex is still relatively undeveloped.

Q: Why is understanding empathy in teens so important?

Since we know that teens are concerned with group membership—the “in” group vs. the “out” group—one way to expand their capacity for empathy at this age is to expand the “in” group by including more people. If we can get them to break down those—“mechanizing” others—they get better at thinking of other people’s feelings.

Empathy is a good predictor of social success in any age group, so it’s important not to lose sight of how other people are feeling.